How to modify technical settings to help protect your privacy

So much sensitive personal data is tracked and sold that trying to protect our privacy can seem futile.

We can disable location tracking on mobile apps only to find new apps that are following us. We can turn off personalized ads and still be bombarded by marketers. We can be fooled by language designed to protect companies’ access to data rather than our privacy.

People who are struggling financially can be targeted by predatory lenders and other unhealthy businesses. If there is a database breach, criminals can buy our information for just a few dollars and use it to impersonate us or target us for scams.

We have limited ability to stop intruders. Meaningful action should usually come from regulators and legislators.

But we can take a few steps to restore small but important pieces of privacy.

Set limits on location tracking

You might think that the number of times you visit a liquor store, go to the gym, or attend a religious service is your own business. But many companies are in the business of collecting this data and using it for marketing and other purposes. You can throw a wrench into this location tracking by changing the settings on your devices.

On iPhones and iPads, go to Settings, then Privacy to find Location Services. With Android devices, go to Settings, then Location to find App Location Permissions. Don’t worry about an app “breaking” by reducing or eliminating its ability to track you, says Thomas Germain, technology and privacy writer for Consumer Reports. If you want to do something with the app that requires your location, the app will make it easier for you to restart it, says Germain.

Regularly check these settings on all your devices. Delete any app you are not using. Bob Sullivan, consumer privacy advocate and author of Gotcha Capitalism says that the fewer apps you have, the fewer opportunities there are for companies to take over and sell your data.

Close other data collection

If you use any Google app or service, your location history can be stored and used even after you stop tracking. Your searches and other activities are stored as well, so consider turning off Google’s ability to hold this data, German says.

To do this, open Google.com in a browser, log into your account, and click on your icon in the upper right corner. Select “Manage your Google Account”, then “Privacy and Personalization”. Under “Your privacy and data options,” choose “The things you’ve done and the places you’ve visited.” You’ll see options to review what information Google stores, and how to turn off data storage and delete stored records.

Germain says that some Google apps may not work well without this data, but you can always turn these functions back on.

Another setting you can toggle off: Ad personalization. Google tries to make tailored ads look like something you want or need. Maybe not.

Your devices have similar options. With iPhones and iPads, turn off Allow apps to request tracking in the Tracking pane of privacy settings. With Android devices, click “Delete Ad ID” under “Ads” in the “Advanced” section of the privacy settings. German says turning off ad personalization won’t completely stop advertisers from stalking you, but it should reduce the number that contains your data.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, a feature in the iOS 15 driver update called the App Privacy Report can show how you are being described and tracked, says Emory Roane, policy advisor for Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

“Turn that on, let it run for a week or two, and then it will tell you a very detailed list of apps that do what they do,” says Rowan. “It’s a great, great resource for iOS users.”

More steps to take

An easy way to reduce data mining, German says, is to switch to browsers designed with privacy in mind, such as Firefox or Brave.

Many sites and apps require you to make privacy decisions right away, making it easy to tap the wrong place in a hurry to get rid of the popup.

“All it took was one incorrect answer, and suddenly I was given all these permissions,” Sullivan says.

See if you have other options, like Discover’s online privacy protection service for debit and credit card holders.

Rowan says people are “unfortunately ill-equipped” to fight all the ways our data is extracted and used.

“The real quick tip is that you need to contact your representative and tell them to support the more robust privacy laws,” he says.

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